Firelight Media, 2015
Writer: Stanley Nelson
Director: Stanley Nelson
Out of 5: 4
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution begins with one of the many talking heads of the film (and former members of the Black Panther Party) telling the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Confronted with different, limited angles on the animal (trunk, tusk, and leg), each man has an alternate perspective and opinion on what animal they are actually touching. It may seem like a cheap tactic to deflect criticism of a documentary’s veracity as simply a limited perspective, but it’s also a sly way for director Stanley Nelson to show that the history of this political movement was complicated in a way that may prove to transcend the documentary format.
For example, a significant amount of running time is spent discussing the growth and fervor of the “Free Huey” movement after he was incarcerated in connection with the death of an Oakland police officer. However, virtually no specifics are given to the circumstances of the case or potential of Newton’s guilt. Meanwhile, the possibility of a Government-orchestrated assassination of up-and-coming Black Panther “messiah” Fred Hampton is discussed in painstaking detail. Ostensibly, this would feel like the work of a dangerously objective nonfiction filmmaker posing as a truthteller. However, the issue comes to a head when the latter third of the film focuses on Huey Newton’s descent into violence and paranoia. Maybe he was never so innocent after all.
Nelson may be doing something very clever here in trusting his audience. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution outright dares people to do their own research. While documentaries that wear their omitted facts on their sleeve can be frustrating, there is a distinct effort here to spark interest instead of merely lecture or educate. It’s a pro-Black Panther film that isn’t afraid to criticize its topic. The majority of ex-members still speak with a deeply intelligent authority on their actions and the state of the black community. But when three men energetically recount a protracted stand-off with police there is a troubling ambivalence on the filmmaker’s part.
This is not a film about whether the techniques of these particular civil rights activists were effective or moral. It very simply charts the inception and internal strife that led to the group’s short-lived popularity while letting former members, at the very least, praise their ultimate intentions. The tight thematic focus allows for a loose narrative that moves fairly chronologically while jumping from topic to topic. One section dives into J. Edgar Hoover’s attempts to destroy and discredit them as radicals. Another is solely dedicated to the importance of Emory Douglas’ art in the official Black Panther. It even returns to some topics when convenient.
From the outset of the film, connections are implicitly made with the current hot-button issue of racially motivated police violence. The film focuses on the legally armed presence of Black Panther members on the streets of California and gradually shifts focus to their rapid growth and eventual decline. It highlights social programs like Free Breakfast for Children and various health clinics without shying away from the more disruptive and dangerous elements that infected the organization. Yes, this group had some very positive impact on the African American community as well as creative ideas on how to solve problems, but it also attracted some less than savory characters. “Black Panther” seems to still be shorthand for “violent radicals” in some circles, and the documentary makes no secret about working to dispel that while admitting some of the group’s shortcomings.
As the film documents the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, one can’t help but link it to the current political climate. Unfortunately, one also can’t help but compare it to a superior film in 2011’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. As that film conquers similar themes and historical figures, there is a passion and fervor that isn’t quite present in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. That being said, Stanley Nelson’s documentary displays a wistful tone from the interviewees that might seem less exciting but manages to be longingly emotional and thought-provoking.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is both an educational and provocative watch. Even with some familiarity with the topic, the nostalgic ride provided in some of the elements is seamlessly integrated into primary source footage with a well-cultivated soundtrack.
Zak Santucci is a contributor to Cinephile City.